A fresh exploration of American feminist history told through the lens of the beauty pageant world.
Many predicted that pageants would disappear by the 21st century. Yet they are thriving. America’s most enduring contest, Miss America, celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2020. Why do they persist? In Here She Is, Hilary Levey Friedman reveals the surprising ways pageants have been an empowering feminist tradition. She traces the role of pageants in many of the feminist movement’s signature achievements, including bringing women into the public sphere, helping them become leaders in business and politics, providing increased educational opportunities, and giving them a voice in the age of #MeToo.
Using her unique perspective as a NOW state president, daughter to Miss America 1970, sometimes pageant judge, and scholar, Friedman explores how pageants became so deeply embedded in American life from their origins as a P.T. Barnum spectacle at the birth of the suffrage movement, through Miss Universe’s bathing beauties to the talent- and achievement-based competitions of today. She looks at how pageantry has morphed into culture everywhere from The Bachelor and RuPaul’s Drag Race to cheer and specialized contests like those for children, Indigenous women, and contestants with disabilities. Friedman also acknowledges the damaging and unrealistic expectations pageants place on women in society and discusses the controversies, including Miss America’s ableist and racist history, Trump’s ownership of the Miss Universe Organization, and the death of child pageant-winner JonBen�t Ramsey.
Presenting a more complex narrative than what’s been previously portrayed, Here She Is shows that as American women continue to evolve, so too will beauty pageants.
I wrote Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America, a book that uses beauty pageants to show how American femininity has changed over the centuries, because I thought it was a book I was uniquely positioned to author. I’m a sociologist and professor at Brown University, where one of my students became Miss America 2018. I’m a feminist who is President of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women. And, I’m the daughter of Miss America 1970. In other words, I have literally lived the complications of the American beauty pageant.
Still, writing this book was by far the hardest thing I have ever done.
First, there was the practical issue that many women writers of a certain age struggle with: finding time to write when you have young kids in the house. My sons were five and seven while I was writing the bulk of Here She Is, so finding time to think, let alone write, for longer than an hour or so at a time was a challenge.
I solved this problem in a few ways. As soon as the boys went to bed around 8 pm, I would immediately close the door of my home office and work until 11 pm when I’d collapse into bed. But when crunch time hit and the kids were out of the house at school or summer camp (remember those days?!) I’d rush home, take off my bra (seriously, this was a crucial step for me!), and feverishly write until it was time to pick them up. When I truly needed silence and zero distractions, I escaped to the library; my favorite place to edit is in the Reading Room at the John Hay Library on Brown’s campus.
But what really got me across the finish line for the final draft was checking into a local hotel for three nights to write a Preface and finish edits. I highly recommend this as a way to eliminate all distractions. Key for me was being at a hotel with room service so I literally didn’t have to walk out the door.
The Preface of Here She Is was a special challenge for me because it was so personal. It meant reckoning with my own views of beauty, how I see myself, and my relationship with my mom. I’m proud of the final product, but I had to dig deep to get there…
No doubt my status as the daughter of a Miss America helped open doors for me during the research process. I definitely have my own academic accomplishments, but my crown-adjacent status made a difference when it came to attending pageants in person and securing interviews.
I find the research aspect of book-writing more enjoyable than the writing, whether personal subject matter or not, which I know isn’t true for everyone. I love finding a document, getting access to a treasure trove of historical items, or securing and completing an interview with someone. Each stage gives me such a thrill and new ideas. I am probably guilty of over-researching with both primary and secondary sources (reading a few books for just a few sentences in the final product, or collecting lots of data for a few paragraphs).
At the end of the day, all the research and writing and editing hours are worth it when I get emails or messages from readers remarking that they did indeed learn something new by reading something I have written. This matters to me because I know how precious time is and I want a reader to feel like they acquired some facts! It also is gratifying to know that by reading something I wrote someone starts thinking about an aspect of the world in a new way, especially by making unexpected connections (for example, I get this a lot when I point out that suffragist and pageant sashes are connected). This is especially gratifying when someone makes connections to their own lives. In the case of Here She Is and beauty pageants, I hope readers will see that this activity really is a complicated activity for women, at times good and at times bad, but rarely straightforward no matter the age or era.
Ultimately, my wish is that a reader will find a kernel of their own unique story to tell by reading Here She Is, or anything else I’ve written. I know that telling that story can be hard, but also that, in the end, it is worth it.
Thank you, Hilary Levey Friedman and FSB Associates
About the author
Hilary Levey Friedman is the author of Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America. She is a sociologist at Brown University, where she has taught a popular course titled “Beauty Pageants in American Society.” She is a leading researcher in pageantry, merging her mother’s past experiences as Miss America 1970 with her interests as a glitz- and glamour-loving sometime pageant judge, and a mentor to Miss America 2018. Friedman also serves as the president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women. Her first book, Playing to Win, focused on children’s competitive afterschool activities.
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Here-She-Complicated-Pageant-America/dp/0807083283/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3643CAXQ7MWYP&dchild=1&keywords=here+she+is+by+hilary+levey+friedman&qid=1603263604&sprefix=here+she+is+%2Caps%2C995&sr=8-1